With the Federal Government yet to require food manufacturers to identify whether a product contains genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) on their labels, several states have proposed legislation that would impose such labeling requirements. While GMO labeling bills have failed in Washington and California, similar legislation has passed in both Vermont and Connecticut. This November, voters in Colorado and Oregon will take to the polls to decide whether these states will follow in the Northeast’s footsteps and mandate labeling that identifies genetically engineered food products.
One of the central debates among consumers surrounding GMO labeling requirements is how to balance the consumers’ right to know what they are purchasing and feeding their families and the potentially burdensome price increases that would result from the arguably unnecessary imposition of these requirements. Opponents of GMO labeling requirements have long argued that there is not sufficient evidence that food derived from GMOs poses any significant danger to consumers. Opponents of the Colorado legislation in particular have also posited that blanket labeling of foods from GMOs can, in fact, be more misleading to consumers than no label at all. For instance, if a food product contains an ingredient that is derived from a GMO, but the ingredient itself is not genetically altered, the proposed Colorado legislation would still require a GMO label to be displayed on that product. Opponents contend that labeling such a product could misinform the consumer about the actual contents of the food product they are seeing in the supermarket.
Thus, even consumers who support the right-to-know side of the debate should exercise diligence. Consumers who may soon be voting on GMO labeling legislation in their own states should make sure they understand the details of the proposed requirements. Helpful inquiries include 1) what the scope of the regulation is, 2) what details the labels will convey about the nature of the genetic alteration of the specific product, and 3) whether there is a realistic consensus about the extent to which such a labeling requirement would increase the average grocery bill for consumers.
Consumers may also want to consider the possibility that the avoidance of genetically engineered food products may soon become an easier task now that the USDA has approved the use of a “Non-GMO Project Verified” label for meat and liquid egg products. If this approval of a negative label sets the precedent for other manufacturers of non-GMO food products to use similar labels, then concerned consumers may eventually be able to rely on such labels to ensure that none of the food they purchase is genetically engineered. However, similar question arise with regards to how meaningful the information conveyed on these labels is to consumers and whether these labels will ultimately mislead consumers more than they inform them.
The one firm consensus we can all reach from this GMO labeling debate is that there is no definitive end in sight. More state legislation is certain to be introduced in the coming years, and voters will continue to be asked to take a position on this increasingly ubiquitous issue. Before casting their votes, it is important that consumers take the time to understand whether a given piece of labeling legislation will properly address whatever concerns they may have over genetically engineered foods.